Help, Help, I Can’t Be Published!
I don’t actually expect sense from David Brooks, but this particular tweet, to entice people into a column whining about the current state of discourse, was especially eye rolling to me:
So, let me break this down a bit.
First, as I noted on Twitter, responding to this tweet: “Implying that ‘one of the great essayists in America’ wouldn’t be smart enough to read the commercial room, and say what he wanted to say in a way that sold to the market that exists today, is going the long way around to say you don’t think he was that great a writer, my dude.” Which is to say Brooks isn’t interested in considering what Christopher Hitchens might be doing and saying if he were alive at the moment; he’s only interested in Hitchens in stasis, preserved in amber since 2011.
If your argument is “A commercial writer couldn’t write to the current market if he was writing like he was two or three decades back,” then, well, yes, and also, this would likely be an accurate statement in whatever year you might want to place it. the 2020s are not the 00s, which were not the 80s which were not the 60s and so on. As the great moral philosopher Hillary Flammond once noted, times change, people change, hairstyles change. So do commercial markets, although some faster than others.
But “great” writers are often not known to be great merely because they write well; they’re known as great because they have some sense of the market and manage to keep getting published over a long enough period time that critics and/or sycophants decide to label them “great.” This usually means being smart enough to know what acquiring editors want, and also (to a lesser extent) knowing what the acquiring editor’s audience wants. To have a career over decades, you probably have to adapt over time to new venues, new editors and new audiences. If you don’t… well, I hope you have a day job.
I was a reader of Christopher Hitchens; he wasn’t entirely editorially inflexible, and he didn’t exactly lack a willingness to go where the money was. I pretty strongly suspect that in the year 2020, Hitchens would have found a way to cast his thoughts in a manner that would be appealing to the market now. Either Brooks doesn’t understand that about Hitchens, or he thinks his readers don’t understand it, so he’s either a fool or a cynic (or both! It could be both!). Either way, he’s probably wrong.
Second, even if Hitchens had not progressed rhetorically since 2011, he’d still be perfectly employable, because — surprise! — the market is actually pretty vast, and there are certainly outlets that very profitably cater to the sort of audience who likes to wring its hands about “cancel culture,” and related nonsenseries, a concept that those very outlets have created in order to give their audiences that anxious “we’re under attack” feeling they apparently desperately crave. I mean, shit, David Brooks is still employed, for some unfathomable reason, and as far as I can tell he hasn’t switched up his particular bag of tricks since the Times hired him in 2003. David Brooks’ continued employment at the New York Times, the most establishment of publications, is its own best argument for why David Brooks’ assertion is complete horsepucky.
(Brooks then goes on to point out that so many of the writers he’s fretting about are now profitably self-publishing in any event, via Substack or other venues, which, I mean, good for them? Is this not the very embodiment of “get your own damn publishing press”? What is actually the problem here?)
I find the “[insert famous, now dead writer here] couldn’t be employed/published today” trope embarrassingly lazy in the best of times. It’s never true, to begin; in the world of books alone, publishers crank out hundreds of thousands of books annually, and self-publishing authors crank out hundreds of thousands more. You can write anything you want and set it out into the world.
It is true, for living authors, that certain publishers may decide they don’t want your book, for whatever reason; welcome to the world of publishing. Equally true, publishers may decide not to publish you for your politics or personal behavior; again, welcome to the world of publishing.
The good news is, there is often a publisher who will be just fine with your politics or personal behavior! Often run by the same overarching publishing conglomerate! In the last year we’ve seen some high profile book titles dropped by one publisher snapped up by another; this is not a new phenomenon. Or self-publish; it’s easy enough to do via ebook and print-on-demand, and you can even do presales via Kickstarter or some other venue. The point is, in fact, almost anyone can be published today.
What is not guaranteed is that everyone is published with the same status and stature as they might have had in years past, or that what they publish will be accepted with a minimum of criticism. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon either, is it? Careers go up, careers go down; people fall out of fashion and then have a resurgence, or not; others plug away for decades and never break into the common consciousness; people whose work was critically acclaimed stop being reviewed; people’s political views stop being mainstream, or they stop having mainstream views and move to the fringe, and their common appeal suffers. Yes, social media has decentralized some aspects of this process; the process itself is as old as the hills.
Ultimately David Brooks’ tweet and column are just the plaintive whine of someone comfortable with things as they were: Why couldn’t they have stayed that way? The answer is not all that surprising: Because they weren’t ever that way for long, you just came up in a moment. And now that moment’s over. Get on with it, or it will get over you.
And when it does, don’t worry: there’s always a Substack newsletter waiting.